Poets Online Archive
  How Not (to write a poem or be a poet)
October 2008

How sad that Lewis Carroll has often been relegated to the classrooms of younger students. "POETA FIT, NON NASCITUR" is not a poem that kids should or would read. The title is a play on the Latin proverb POETA  NASCITUR, NON FIT which means "A poet is born, not made." Carroll flips it over to mean a poet is made, not born which I have used for many years as the slogan for this website. Poets Online runs on the premise that we can all learn to be better poets by writing poems with a bit of guidance and by trying different forms and heading in new directions.

Unlike some of Carroll's other famous poems, this one is not all nonsense. In fact, you probably need a bit of help with some of the references.

In his advice to becoming a poet, he says:

First learn to be spasmodic -
A very simple rule.

"For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out

Spasmodic poetry was actually a form known in his time. It frequently took the form of verse drama and the protagonist was often a poet. The poetry was choppy, and, from the few samples I could find, rather difficult to comprehend. Of course, we might also take his advice as a dig at poets who take prose and "chop it small" in lines and stanzas and call it a poem.

Carroll does use some of his word tricks as when he splits "immature" to complete a rhyme:

Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im-
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.

In other words, the "mature" poet will make sure the arrangement of those chopped sentences doesn't give away too much about what the poem mean.

And what better way to confuse things than to throw in some Latin -  exempli gratia  means "An example, if you please."  Plus, the Adelphi is a London theatre and The Colleen Bawn is a play by Boucicault, and duodecimo is a book made up of twelve-page gatherings cut from single sheets.

So, Carroll's poem about how to be a poet is a model of how not to write a poem.

Our prompt for the month is to write a poem either about how NOT to be a poet or how not to write a poem - and to use rhyme. Perhaps that rhyme will be a lesson in how a poet should not use rhyme. Maybe the poem will be Carrollish in its humor, satire, word play or fantasy. Maybe not.

More about this prompt and others plus the chance for you to interact with your fellow poets is available on the Poets Online Blog.


Sublime your words till they’re abstract as “Good.”
Abjure the adjective-made-verb (like that “Sublime”).
A lapse in grammar’s worse than squandered rhyme
and possibly could be misunderstood.
If it’s a rose, then it’s a red-red rose,
not tinged with purple shadows of a doubt.
Allusions à-propos, or else left out;
your meaning should shine clear as polished prose.
No impulse metaphor, no blowzy blues.
You must be timeless. None of this rip-rap.
No madman’s door ajar, no ragged gap
with messy business from the nightly news.
A measured meter and no flights of dream;
a concrete channel with a babbling stream.

Taylor Graham


Write a poem, well they say that's mad
To chop out verse with an uncouth blade. Bad?
That looks for something better to grasp
Than rubble . If I could ever it clasp
To me the perfect poem and make it yield
I should have a better shining field
Than mere effort or half heart doggerel.
But poems that strain are incomplete transmissions
And the poet hovers too hard on indecision
Is is it good enough? Too rough to bend a readers ear?
Ouch I'll say it's all very queer
To want yet despise the verse wanted so dear
Let it fall, let it hang and force the better man
To compliance and the question of Can
It be an artifice not despised by rambling lines.
To myself must I be not unkind
Realise that when my matrimony sweet with my muse
Falls into the habit, malpractice , disuse, a bargain with untruth
And glide a more elegant swan king to a better place
It is better not to force the rhyme when my lady turns her face
And smiles on others more favourable in her place.
Yes better then not to scribe paltry attempts at composition
When the inspiration speaks not of being driven.
Thus to remain quiet and remain in it without doing it
Poems will themselves, not the vanity of the poet!

John macPherson

"Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box."– Italian Proverb

The throne fell in his lap at age sixteen
His body was tall, muscular and lean
His head was well shaped even in the teens
His carriage in demeanor bespoke his royal genes

He had an equal measure of solemnity and gaiety
So all his hangers on had to come up with things witty
He did not suffer fools gladly and dismissed them in a jiffy
His royal courts were full of entertainment and sobriety

Once a month he went to the nearby forest for a jaunt
Chasing a sleeping tiger or a lion or even a tiny fawn
The pickings were abundant but often quite scant
But that did not faze him as he took life on a slant

On his next foray he saw an old man seated under an oak
Who did not bow or blink upon seeing his royal cloak
But stroked the bonfire in front with a gentle poke
His highness was mystified at this silent rebuke

He got off his horse and bowed towards the old man
Asking him for words of wisdom with his face wan
The old man said he too was once a king with great élan
But realized its futility as he had no control over his life span

So he gave it all up and sought answers in the jungle
Not worrying a bit about his riches n consequent bungle
Just pondering upon life and its great mystery and the tussle
Between life n death and the struggle to put the mind in a muzzle

It was an uphill and a hard task that he had set upon himself
As the mind was like a slippery eel darting about in the reef
To spike it required an enormous strength of will was his belief
Otherwise one continued struggling haplessly and acquired only grief!
And with these few words he fell back into his silent reverie!

Bina Gupta


An archetypal criminal,
The crime for what it¹s worth,
An antediluvian effigy
Fit only for the earth.
Piled deep, six feet an era past,
Now fevered scornful mirth.

Subservient rhyme this mistress be,
Flirtatious in her ways,
Siren lure hypnotic chords
Brought forth a purple haze.
Lithe temptress baits unwary pen;
A peer with grimace gaze.

Quixotic splatter of tumbled threads
Chained firm their sentence given,
Upon this page and those before,
Spellbound the words are driven.
Restraint, the portal bars set firm,
Reborn the mind is striven.

Tony T.


thou shalt not contrive thy sonnet
impose no brute force on it

nor adulterate your haiku
or the ghost of basho will haunt you

when rendering your senryu
toss all verbaceous word stew

reduce the roasted rhetoric
excise the wordy generics

tweak the onomatopoeiass
cast out verbal diarrhea

be egregiously coy
in your poetic ploy

too many tenses
offend the senses

marie a. mennuto-rovello


POETA FIT, NON NASCITUR      by Lewis Carroll

"How shall I be a poet?
How shall I write in rhyme?
You told me once 'the very wish
Partook of the sublime.'
Then tell me how! Don't put me off
With your 'another time'!"

The old man smiled to see him,
To hear his sudden sally;
He liked the lad to speak his mind
And thought "There's no hum-drum in him,
Nor any shilly-shally."

"And would you be a poet
Before you've been to school?
Ah, well! I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic -
A very simple rule.

"For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.

'Then, if you'd be impressive,
Remember what I say,
That abstract qualities begin
With capitals alway:
The True, the Good, the Beautiful -
Those are the things that pay!

"Next, when you are describing
A shape, or sound, or tint;
Don't state the matter plainly,
But put it in a hint;
And learn to look at all things
With a sort of mental squint."

"For instance, if I wished, Sir,
Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say 'dreams of fleecy flocks
Pent in a wheaten cell'?"
"Why, yes," the old man said: "that phrase
Would answer very well.

"Then fourthly, there are epithets
That suit with any word -
As well as Harvey's Reading Sauce
With fish, or flesh, or bird -
Of these, 'wild,' 'lonely,' 'weary,' 'strange,'
Are much to be preferred."

"And will it do, O will it do
To take them in a lump -
As 'the wild man went his weary way
To a strange and lonely pump'?"
"Nay, nay! You must not hastily
To such conclusions jump.

"Such epithets, like pepper,
Give zest to what you write;
And, if you strew them sparely,
They whet the appetite:
But if you lay them on too thick,
You spoil the matter quite!

"Last, as to the arrangement:
Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im-
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.

"Therefore, to test his patience -
How much he can endure -
Mention no places, names, or dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
Consistently obscure.

"First fix upon the limit
To which it shall extend:
Then fill it up with 'Padding'
(Beg some of any friend):
You place towards the end."

"And what is a Sensation,
Grandfather, tell me, pray?
I think I never heard the word
So used before to-day:
Be kind enough to mention one

And the old man, looking sadly
Across the garden-lawn,
Where here and there a dew-drop
Yet glittered in the dawn,
Said "Go to the Adelphi,
And see the 'Colleen Bawn.'

'The word is due to Boucicault -
The theory is his,
Where Life becomes a Spasm,
And History a Whiz:
If that is not Sensation,
I don't know what it is.

"Now try your hand, ere Fancy
Have lost its present glow - "
"And then," his grandson added,
"We'll publish it, you know:
Green cloth - gold-lettered at the back -
In duodecimo!"

Then proudly smiled that old man
To see the eager lad
Rush madly for his pen and ink
And for his blotting-pad -
But, when he thought of PUBLISHING,
His face grew stern and sad.

by Lewis Carroll


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